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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 7:  inferno
The Malpais, Carrizozo, New Mexico

At one in the afternoon something is wrong. The grasses and the clumps of tree cholla, and the hollylike Fremont barberry and the nolinas like sword bunches, the white surfs of flat-topped buckwheat, the black broken rocks, everything that's been in close focus for hours, even the hands in front of my face fade, blur, whiten; this is more than the midday light of the Tularosa valley. I've been out on the lava beds (the malpais, pronounced "mahl pie," meaning bad country in Spanish) since dawn; now something is wrong. Perhaps I didn't take the Spaniards seriously enough. The air is suddenly too thin to breathe and my vision narrows as if I were looking down the wrong end of a telescope, I'm losing touch with the ground. Sit down quick before you fall, I say to myself, into one of those black chasms, into the cholla, God forbid, too much to trip on here, don't move. Sit now, I say, and I do.

Dizzy, I'm dizzy, the world has faded like a photograph grossly overexposed. Heatstroke, honey, this is it for you, they'll find you here next month curled on this black volcanic griddle like yesterday's tortilla. Drink something, please. I fumble in my pack and field guides and binocs clatter to the stones, ahhh, canteen. Unscrew the thing. The water is tepid, like musty soup, it slides down anyhow.

No shade for miles. What is it you need, what do you need? Think. And I do, and one idea emerges full-blown and all-at-once: beer.

Color of amber with little bubbles popping and a white froth that chills the upper lip. Bitter, clean, cold, wet. Beer.

A vision, that's all you need to survive: an unattainable vision.

***

All else follows. I finish the contents of my canteen like a child taking milk of magnesia from a loving hand. I wait ten minutes. I haul myself upright and put one foot in front of the other foot all the way, talking myself back through this lava flow that came through the place less than a thousand years ago with the texture of lumpy cake batter. Right, up a little, whoa there, to the left now, woopsie do, right, left, easy now, good girl, not far now.

The lava flow is like cake batter. Was. When you pour it down, it flows tongue-like with a wrinkled surface and the plops and ploops only half sink in, it's full of air bubbles, just like this.

The lava cooled, a pour as broad as six miles wide and forty-eight miles long and black as your hat. It's two pours, actually, two batches, both belched from the same diminutive almost invisible pimple-like object some miles to the north. Can't see it now, it's unimportant anyway, doesn't merit the name volcano in any case, they call it a cone.

The lava rock poured thick and fast when it came. Fresh olivine porphyritic basalt is what it is; deep mantle material made up of metallic oxides, mostly silica but alumina too, iron and manganese, magnesia, a little lime, soda, potash, titanium. Recipe for inferno. Mix and pour. Let cool for a millennium. Here we are.

The distant rurk of a raven. There is always a raven. What you think of their comments depends on your mood.

When I worked on my farm, I used to think he said: "Work! Work!"

Now I think he says: "Weak! Weak!"

I'm weak; my legs are too flexible, as if I had too many knees. There are rhythmic creaks passing my ear; a grasshopper coming up with a yellow flash, going down. Five creaks: a pallid-winged grasshopper, then. The lava is black-gray with rusty stains where it has broken, the old surface almost glossy, wrinkly, the old fluid body of it shattered, caved in, cracked. Here in a crevice a spider has made a web with its "bedroom" in the round hole of an old gas bubble. Everything is used in the world. Some tube caves have fallen in, there's sharp rubble everywhere and ravines and ragged holes. No place to stumble around.

What brought me here and what has kept me here past good sense is this: it is a rich place. All those ingredients, those oxides! How do I know?

Look out there now, even in this bleaching light of one in the afternoon; beyond the lava there's nothing but pale flatness and then low hills all the color of bone, all bony land tufted with groundsel and snakeweed and prickly fetid marigold, all the clumpy hangers-on to arid nothing much. Beyond the Tularosa valley, beyond the low range that borders it to the west, is another wider valley: the Jornada del Muerto, the journey of death. Those Spaniards again naming things as they saw them in the raw, and this is raw all right, one of those deserts you don't want to be in. The dry empty heart of New Mexico. The odd stunted mesquite, the odd spot of a juniper dark on a slope. Otherwise only sandstone and limestone, the soil crusted with chalky white caliche: calcium carbonate capping the soil like whitewash. Desert ground whatever way you cut it. Then look at this lava bed, this malpais ... all these things growing in here!

Here the grama grasses are high and gold. Here are rich thickets of yucca, squawbush, barberry. Clumps of flowers are in yellow bloom, and little red-flowered clammyweeds. There are tree cholla and prickly pear and hedgehog cactus and desert Christmas cactus, and clumps of feather peabush. The bare lava is lichened with soft green, yellow, orange, ochre. Every crevice is stuffed with herbs, mints. Painted-lady butterflies bat the air, the creakers rise and creak and fall. Now a white tumulus rises out of the black basalt: destination one. Camp. My car. It's not far now.

A thousand years ago the lava flowed around this outcrop of sandstone leaving it like an island. Steep-sided. I lean my way up its pale round rocks, through the uninteresting vegetation, avoiding the thorns of the mesquite. My car is like an oven but it starts. I still don't dare take off my hat. Drive, I tell myself, you can do it now, drive, honey, till you find that beer.

New Mexico Afternoon, Soaptree yucca in the Tularosa valley

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